Monday, October 23, 2006

Growing Garlic

According to the great tonic and cures salesmen of the American frontier, garlic, grown right, can save the soul, seduce the palate and stimulate the mind. Fortunately, Westchester has a great climate, decent soil (with some help) and plenty of people in dire need of a little culinary seduction and the intensity of allium sativum (yes, garlic).

And just as the growing season has come to a close (and gardeners’ moods are tempted towards darkness), the garlic season is coming upon us. Garlic is best planted in these parts in late October through early December. The idea is to give the bulbs a bit of time to put down roots before the ground freezes hard. The roots will hold the bulbs in place against the heaving frosts of winter. In the spring, green tips will rocket up before virtually anything else living has breached the cold surface of the ground. In mild winters the garlic will grow humbly all season long and then shoot suddenly toward the sun when temperatures warm and days grow longer.

There are 274 distinct varieties of garlic listed and available through the Seed Savers Exchange. They all can be traced back to garlic’s origins in South Central Asia (hence the saying, “If you can’t find a clove of garlic, just look in the sack of a Yomna horseman”) but many are associated with more recent varietal origins. Some of The WesFoodie’s favorites are these:

MUSIC: Named for Al Music, the man who brought this variety to America. Music has large fat cloves and a heart thumping flash of heat. The pink skin on each clove lends a delicate beauty to this favorite of the organic set.

ITALIAN PURPLE: This garlic has a clean taste with a kick that hits when tooth meets clove and then fades fast leaving just a full garlic flavor. Probably my favorite.

ROMANIAN RED: RR has fire. This clove bites the tongue and flushes the cheeks with its heat. True garlic lovers will eat this one raw.

Interest in small batch garlic farming has increased dramatically in recent years. Many garlic connoisseurs regard the crop in much the same way as wine; something intricately tied to the particulars of soil and weather conditions fixed in place and time. The truth is that growing garlic is fairly easy. Compared to cultivating wine grapes or orchids, it’s a walk in the fields.

Just plant each clove (with peel on) pointed side up about an inch and a half below the surface. Keep each clove at least six inches apart from its neighbors. Cover with some organic mulch – leaves or straw work nicely. Water once. Viola. A garlic field.

The only real tricks are deciding when (or if, but do it no matter what some people say) to remove the scapes – the long green flowering tips that appears in late spring to early summer – and when to harvest. First, snip off the scapes as soon as they bend onto themselves to form a circle. This will be obvious when it happens. By removing the scape you will give the garlic the impulse to put all of its energy into the bulbs and not the flower. The scapes by the way make the most wonderful pesto if you just blend them up with some nuts and olive oil – I mean really the best! Then harvest the garlic when the bottom leaves have yellowed and browned so that there are only four living green leaves left. For each leaf there is one layer of wrapper on the bulbs. If you go to less than four the cloves will be exposed and they won’t keep well or look like you expect. So pull ‘em at four. Brush off the soil and let them “cure” in a dark cool place for a couple of weeks then cut off the stalks. That’s it. Your harvest is ready for the kitchen.

The definitive guide to growing organic garlic is Growing Great Garlic by Ron England. A transcendent tale of a New Mexico garlic farm is sung by Stanley Crawford in A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm. Crawford farms poems.

You can order seed garlic at Johnny’s Seeds ( and The Garlic Store ( Hurry they are running out of stock fast.

Try growing some garlic this year. Just grab some cloves, get down and get dirty.

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